The SNP's Weak Cultural Case for Independence

Following Ed Miliband’s speech on national identity on Thursday, we were given a good look at the SNP’s communications strategy for their Independence campaign.

Responding to Miliband’s speech in a BBC interview, Humza Yousaf MSP likened ‘Britishness’ to ‘Scandanavian’ and asserted that an independent Scotland would still be British, by virtue of pure geography.

Later in the day, Alex Neil MSP made the same point on BBC Question Time. This is obviously disingenuous.

Ideas of Britishness and Scottishness and Englishness are all nebulous concepts, but that is precisely because we take them to mean more than a geographical descriptor. If it means anything, Britishness is a class of citizenship that the residents of an Independent Scotland would not automatically be granted.

My instinct is that few of the referendum voters will be taken in by this semantic smokescreen, but nevertheless such weak thinking needs to be highlighted by those of us who support a continued Union.

The SNP ruse that ‘Britishness’ is analogous to ‘Scandanavian’ implies that the campaign for Independence is motivated by primarily economic and practical concerns, with no cultural element whatsoever. But this does not capture the reasons that drive people to support Independence.

Whenever I have asked people in Scotland why they support Independence, they always, always cited cultural reasons. This was usually articulated in terms of TV sports and news reports – Scottish sportsmen and artists claimed as British, or worse, misidentified as English.

These examples were cited as symptomatic of a wider dismay at the cultural marginalisation at the hands of our London-based media.

This is not to say that there are no economic or straight political arguments for splitting from Westminster (an independent Scotland could have avoided Thatcherism, for example), but the cultural element is crucial. The SNP are avoiding talking about it because it is the most difficult aspect in which to distinguish the Scots from the British (and indeed, the English and Welsh).

Ed Miliband and other unionists spend their time making thoughful speeches, in which they wrestle with the problem of multiple identities.

What they should remember is that its a philosophical problem for Nationalists too! The entropy of the situation always increases – more cultural and ethnic overlap, more internal and external migration.

Distilling Scottishness from Britishness is essential to the SNP case for Independence… but their recent talking points suggest they are avoiding this issue.

3 thoughts on “The SNP's Weak Cultural Case for Independence”

  1. (Cross posted from Liberal Conspiracy)

    Why is the claim that an independent Scotland would still be British by virtue of geography so disingenuous? Stricly speaking Scandinavia as a geographical term only refers to the penninsula containing Norway and Sweden. The term is used as a catch all to include Denmark for obvious linguistic, historical, cultural and geographic reasons. The term Nordic is also often used and broadened to include Iceland. Finalnd is also sometimes included, altho’ it is linguistically and culturally fairly distinct, by dint of historic, cultural and geographic links.

    A Scot post independence in 2014 laying claim to a British identity is no more odd than a Dane, Swede, Norwegian or Icelander saying they were Scandinavian, altho’ I’m unsure how many of my fellow countrymen would make the claim. (You don’t find many citizens of the Irish republic claiming a Britsh identity after all… tho’ the reasons are somewhat different in their case given the history of Irish-British relations).

    Neither you, nor indeed anyone else in the “UK of GB and NI” have the right to ownership of the term British, whatever the rump UK decides to call itself in the event of a “yes” vote in Scotland in 2014. A British identity does not automatically equate to citizenship of the UK because you have randomly and unilaterally decided it does.

    Your claim that the cultural element of independence is crucial is specious. It is undoubtedly AN element of course, but by no means the most important or even something that is anything more than background. Scots who support independence or increased devolution (who together make up the vast majority of the population), and others who do not, take a distinctive Scottish cultural identity as a given; the SNP are not avoiding talking about it…. they simply don’t need to.

    Two years out from the referendum, the crucial one third of voters who will decide the outcome (since currently around one third are against, and one third in favour) the issues which will sway the swing voters are NOT cultural, they are economic, political and social.

    You state that: “the SNP are avoiding talking about [the cultural element] because it is the most difficult aspect in which to distinguish the Scots from the British (and indeed, the English and Welsh)”, but I’ve seen little evidence of what seems to me a wild assertion on your part. A great deal of discussion has gone on about how Scotland could be in a better position if it were independent, and how the only way to protect and promote the kind of social democratic values most Scots hold dear is to ensure we can make important decisions ourselves.

    If the people you have been talking to in Scotland always cite cultural reasons, you’ve either been talking to the wrong people, or asking the wrong questions (probably both from the tenor of the post). People I talk to cite many reasons, among them preserving the NHS, avoiding tuition fees and prescription charges, and promoting a more equal, progressive society. What engages them and motivates them, is not the largely Unionist imposed narrative of supposed narrow cultural nationalism, but a fairly nuanced combination of factors, the most critical of which is whether desired outcomes are best served by remaining in the Union, or reclaiming independence.

    The failure of the Unionists is to develop a coherent and positive case for the Union is obvious for anyone to see. They are disunited within Scotland, and have abjectly failed to show how they will accommodate the desire for greater autonomy (whether devo-plus, devo-max, full fisal autonomy etc.) within the current UK political system.

    The answer of course is that they cannot square that circle, because they will never be able to convince Westminster that they can solve the West Lothian question. Unionists are therefore reduced to lame promises that we shall have jam tomorrow, but only if we are good little voters and vote “no” to independence in 2014. The same was said in 1979, and we are unlikely to fall for it again.

  2. I dismissed this post on twitter as “metropolitan navel-gazing”, but it deserves something a little more piquant than that. I’ll provide just one “Cultural Case” for independence.

    Imagine not being able to read or speak well your own language. It takes a real effort for me to read Scots. I – like most people in Scotland – have a reading age somewhere between 7 and 10 in my native language. This language was literally beaten out of our parents/grandparents generation during the post-war “British Project” era. Imagine that – primary school children being whipped with a thick leather strap; on the palms and wrists, on the backs of legs, shoulders and bare buttocks, just for speaking their native language. Sounds like something from the worst excesses of colonialism, doesn’t it?

    During the debate, you’ll not hear much of this sort of stuff, because it’s passive-agressive, put-upon pleading, highlighting past humiliations of a people at the hands of the supra-state. It’s *nasty* and we don’t like to think about it very much. The debate we’re trying to have is about Scotland’s future, not her past. But all of Scotland’s people know that aspects of our culture have been suppressed, subsumed or co-opted. (And the examples you give about sports teams and the like are dog-whistle tokens for that wider cultural suppression.) Once, during that post-war-settlement era, maybe we thought it was a fair exchange, but the post-war-settlement has been dismantled without our consultation, now we require the quid pro quo.

    The case for independence is almost entirely cultural. The SNP have manoeuvred the actors of the British state onto this territory by using tokens. When Osborne came to Edinburgh to lay down the law on currency, he did so because he had been manipulated into the position of having to do so. Metropolitan commentators heard him talk about what thrills them most – money. But we couldn’t hear what he was saying, so dazzled were we by the feathered pith-helmet which Alex Salmond made him wear. We could see it, even if you couldn’t.

  3. @Galen10 – “If the people you have been talking to in Scotland always cite cultural reasons, you’ve either been talking to the wrong people, or asking the wrong questions (probably both from the tenor of the post”. Who are these *wrong* people? I’m guessing people who are not in agreement with you. What I hate most about this debate, is exactly this kind of comment. People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest and all that. I have lots of friends who, because *they* are not motivated by patriotism, deny that it might be a motivation for other yes voters. There was always going to be a lack of nuance in a yes/no debate I suppose – but it’s depressing nonetheless.

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